Who gets the blame when a member of a group does something wrong — the person or the group? The answer may depend on how cohesive the group is perceived to be, according to researchers at Boston College and Northwestern University.
The researchers found that the more cohesive a group appears — whether it is a company, a political party, a government agency, or a pro sports team — the more likely it is that people will hold its members less responsible for their individual actions.
The study sheds light on why people tend to address hostility toward large companies or other groups, while still treating members of those groups as unique individuals, the researchers claim.
Researchers Liane Young, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, and Adam Waytz, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, say that the more people judge a group to have a “mind” — that is, the ability to think or plan — the less they judge a member of that group to have his or her own capacity to think or plan.
The researchers refer to this as a “trade-off” in the way people view a group vs. the way they view individuals in the group.
“We thought there might be certain cases where instead of attributing mind to individuals, people actually attribute mind to the group,” said Young.
“For instance, if you’re a Democrat, you might think that the Republican party has an agenda, a mind of its own, but that each individual Republican is just following the crowd, incapable of independent thought. That’s the trade-off we’re after, between group mind and member mind.”
A strong brand image, generally considered to be a corporate asset, could contribute to consumers’ perceptions of single-mindedness, meaning the brand would be more likely to be held accountable for its employees’ actions, the researchers posit.
The researchers sought to investigate this idea of “group mind,” as well as the consequences for both groups and their members. The relationship between “group mind” and “group-member mind” has been largely unexplored, the researchers say, but it raises questions about decision-making, blame and moral judgment.
“We think the topic of whether people think of groups as having minds has a number of implications for legal decisions, such as regarding conspiracy — a charge that requires collective intent, how people think about social movements and their members, as well as judgments of corporate personhood,” added Waytz.
“When people consider corporations to be mindful entities, this gives them moral rights, such as the right to contribute to political campaigns as was granted to them by the Supreme Court last year, as well as legal responsibilities.”
Predicting that an inverse relationship exists between attributions of group mind and member mind, the researchers conducted four experiments to test their theory.
The first established the premise that the more “mind” that people attribute to groups, the less “mind” they attribute to group members. The researchers asked participants to evaluate groups, including specific corporations, professional sports teams, and government entities on the extent to which each group has a mind of its own, the extent to which each member of that group has a mind of his or her own, and the extent to which each group is cohesive. The results proved not only the original premise, but also that participants viewed cohesive groups as having particularly high group mind, researchers said.
The second experiment tested the consequences of assigning group mind by rating the extent to which groups are morally responsible for their collective actions, and the extent to which each member is responsible for the collective actions of the group. When participants assigned a single mind to a group, they also assigned responsibility for that group’s collective actions to the group’s body of members.
The third experiment tested the effect of perceived cohesiveness on assignment of group mind and responsibility, and found that groups perceived to be cohesive were assigned higher levels of both, and assigned low levels of individual minds within the group.
In the final experiment, Young and Waytz said they found that members of cohesive groups were not assigned individual responsibility for individual actions.
“In ongoing research, we are looking at intergroup conflict,” said Young. “For example, how do Republicans and Democrats actually think about the opposing party vs. members of the opposing party?”
The study, “The Group-Member Mind Tradeoff: Attributing Mind to Groups Versus Group Members,” appears in the December issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Source: Boston College